Video games as a whole have never really fit into genres very well. For a time I had a Google alert set up for the search phrase “adventure game” so that I could try and catch gaming news as it happened, but found that the word “adventure” was being used too broadly. I was looking for point-and-click adventure games while the term was also being used to describe platformers and other action-oriented titles.
Lately the video game genre label of “roguelike” has been applied to games that borrow elements from the genre and its founding game, Rogue. Sometimes the comparison seems reaching as the game described may only be tenuously related to roguelikes, but I think the term’s use is ultimately a good thing. There are many reasons Rogue spawned its own genre and video games iterating and borrowing from the game can only stand to keep Rogue’s memory alive. Further, it has attracted players like myself, who want learn more about the genre’s history and are curious about what the term “roguelike”
It was not until fairly recently that I realized that I had more experience playing roguelikes than I had thought, not previously connecting Castle of the Winds, RogueSurvivor, and Dungeons of Dredmor.
However, having playing roguelikes with graphical tile-sets still didn’t quite feel legit. I wanted to delve the dark and scary depths of ASCII art roguelikes where you the player are a simple “@”.
I had heard of Brogue through a few channels and thought it would be a good game to try first. Upon starting the game I was immediately dropped into a terrifying land of confusing symbols with a non-existent user interface. It took some focus and patience but as I played, the interface slowly didn’t seem so obtuse, moving around the game’s dark dungeon became clear, and I gradually began to see symbols not as abstract representations but as the things they were actually supposed to be. That musical note over in the corner? That is a mysterious magic scroll waiting for me to come pick it up. What is that left bracket across the line of red dots? Why, it is a shining suit of armor sitting on an outcropping of rock, reached by a rickety rope bridge of course! When my wife asked what the heck I was playing, I joked that I was reading the matrix. I was no longer seeing a series of symbols but a world full of adventure and a dank dungeon filled with danger.
Moving past Brogue’s dense presentation I quickly discovered a game that is incredibly fun to play, entertaining, and yet difficult to master. The first few levels are fairly easy and give you a chance to stock up on supplies but thereafter the game quickly punishes sloppy game play. Each step in Brogue needs to be carefully measured and enemies approached tactically. Most importantly, your inventory of items must be carefully managed and used appropriately. Even worse is when you find items that aren’t labeled, and you won’t know their use until you take the risk to try them. Is that red potion an elixir of healing or a flask of incineration? You had better stand next to a body of water before opening it just in case. Luckily once you’ve tried an item any future versions of that item are then labeled. This creates an identification sub-game within Brogue as using an unknown item in the face of danger can save or end your life.
My favorite thing about Brogue is its emergent game play. You never know what the effects of particular actions might be and your approach to a situation is always different. Once, I crept into the entrance of a room that opened onto a giant underground lake. The room was filled with goblins and I, having just survived a tough fight, was in no condition to take them on directly. I threw a potion of incineration at the goblins and mis-clicking, accidentally threw it into the lake. The potion exploded and turned the water into a cloud of steam which quickly scalded the goblins to death. Brogue is full of such moments where confrontations with monsters are often better resolved in ways other than stand-up fights.
Despite my initial fears, Brogue’s interface actually is quite good, and besides its deliberate item description masking, the game is very generous with its information. Highlighting enemies provides a helpful description of them and any special abilities they may have. Practical shortcuts abound in the game as well. I simply adore Brogue’s auto-explore function which puts the game on autopilot—extremely useful after you have died for getting through the first few levels again so you can quickly get back to deeper floors of the dungeon.
Brogue is a brutal game and I have yet to get past the 20th level (there are 25). Bad luck and inattention will bring a quick death, forcing you to start the game completely over.
Typically such treatment would cause me to abandon a game but I have yet to die and not be able to identify my misstep. Items are randomly generated so sometimes you may get an inferior selection but in most cases my death is directly connected to some bad decision on my part.
Brogue has turned out to be the perfect starting place for someone new to ASCII roguelikes. The game is smart, well-designed, and it forces its players to be patient and efficient. Also, Brogue makes no apologies for its toughness but does so without compromising the user’s experience—a rarity in today’s gaming. Now that I have crossed the barrier of entry into roguelikes I am excited to see what else is out there.